Complex systems

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This weekend, I have been thinking about complex adaptive systems.

Wikipedia tells me that complex adaptive systems contain multiple diverse interacting components and that the system is structured such that it adapts and learns from experience.  At least, it appear to learn.  The system is not conscious or reflective on its experience.  An ecosystem can be seen as a complex adaptive system.

In a cancer, the malignant cells are themselves diverse: some dividing, others resting; some forming a tumour, others infiltrating adjacent tissues, others again invading blood vessels and migrating.  Then there are the array of non-malignant cells: those forming blood vessels; inflammatory cells responding as if this were a healing wound; immune cells perhaps recognising and killing cancer cells, perhaps exciting such killer cells, perhaps damping the immune response.  All these various cells are in communication with each other, sending short range messages by direct contact or chemical signals.  This complex adaptive system is called the immune microenvironment of the cancer.

I am not prone to hyperbole.  Still, I think we* sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated, using new drugs to manipulate the immune microenvironment of cancers.  The drugs are becoming available.  The challenge is to understand the immune microenvironment sufficiently so we use the drugs effectively.

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This piece started with a layer of charcoal, the images driven by recent reading and current music.  I tore into the dampened paper creating highlights and texture.  This was then obscured by layers of gouache and acrylic paint, allowing charcoal and sea salt to disperse slowly, suspended in the very wet washes.   After a week or so looking at it, turning it one way and another, eventually I saw in it a narrative suggesting a complex system.


*”we sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated” – by “we” I mean the worldwide cancer community – patients, carers, researchers, clinicians, health care providers, research institutions, industry and those who commission and fund cancer care

4 responses to “Complex systems

  1. Beautiful pictures. And interesting thoughts.
    One problem might be that each such system is different. There might be no general laws applying to all since they are developing historical, i.e. individual systems. So what might work in one might not work in another (althought we might find methods that work in many cases).

    • Hi
      I absolutely agree and can confirm from experience that each system is different. One type of cancer behaves differently to another and even within the same kind of cancer there are multiple variants. However, there are constraints on variation also. A cell has to go through multiple steps to become a cancer and there are checks to be overcome. An established cancer has a number of hallmarks (a key paper in this is called Hallmarks of Cancer), common biological demands it must meet to enable it to behave like a cancer. So while a malignant process might have evolved in various ways in different people to end up looking like the same kind of cancer, there will be common patterns to the various processes. This is like convergent evolution in which unrelated organisms end up resembling each other having evolved under similar ecological constraints to occupy a particular ecological niche. So understanding the differences and common features making up the complex system of cancers of the same type becomes the basis of stratified medicine, personalising treatment according to the specific biology of a patient’s cancer.

      • Probably these cancers don’t have enough time to evolve in really different ways. The exception might be those infectious kinds know from dogs and tasmanian devils, where cancers have evolved into some kind of parasitical organism that can jump from one host to another. These might develop into totally new things (if the host species does not become extinct).
        However, I am not an oncologist, just generally interested in science.

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